National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Bacchus and Ariadne, by Antoine-Jean Gros

by Thomas W. Gaehtgens

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6 

These two life-size figures are painted in three-quarter length on a background of landscape with the sea meeting the horizon. They are brilliant in terms of colour and veracity. This somewhat ancient allegory, which is often used to give artists an opportunity to contrast two types of form and tone, is given new life here by the perfection of execution exhibited by Mr Gros. With no need for invention, it seems that all of the painter's genius have been focused on execution. The charm and simplicity of detail, especially where the woman's torso is concerned, cannot be adequately described. The arm which she has already surrendered to her consoler is a masterpiece of picturesque imitation; nature is its most beautiful and most voluptuous form. And the mask of Ariadne, who is smiling through her tears, is not lacking in expression. This is a judicious way of typifying her. There is even a little malice expressed in her gesture as she points to Theseus, since only her index and little fingers are pointing toward the fleeing scoundrel, while her thumb, middle and ring fingers are curled together. Like the genre painters, Mr Gros has not overemphasized the crown of grapes and the other accessories which crown Bacchus; he felt that it would be uncouth to use wine as the source of consolidation. As a man of intelligence and a painter of history, he has chosen to make the consoler attractive. (35)

These positive assessments contrast, however, with the harsh criticism levelled by those people who regarded Gros's earlier Napoleonic paintings as a new beginning. Bacchus and Ariadne is a painting that does not contain any of the passionate Rubenesque style common in Napoleonic history works. Artists like Géricault and Delacroix had revered Gros because he was able to communicate his commitment through his painting.

For them, therefore, Bacchus and Ariadne was nothing more than an academic study; for them it constituted a relapse into a doctrine which, it was believed, was already outdated, but one to which the artist felt morally bound by the responsibility of his position as the chief exponent of the David school of painting. Delacroix could not see this. He regarded this reversal of style as a compromise that went against Gros's actual artistic beliefs, and he could not bring himself to devote more than one sentence to the painting, in the famous essay which he published on Gros in the Revue des Deux-Mondes in 1948. "Bacchus and Ariadne was even further removed from the previous works of the great painter, and in it there was more affectation than finesse." (36) It was the dichotomy between Romanticism and Classicism which, as Delacroix so keenly observed, was the source of Gros's tragedy. Despite many critical remarks, Gros's contemporaries recognized the worth of the painting, which is now in the National Gallery of Canada, and appreciated his efforts to uphold the teachings of David. But Gros's faith in David, which he continued to profess in later works as well, was probably one of the factors that caused Gros to develop more and more against his own nature. It is only natural that he became increasingly sensitive to criticism, finally reaching the conclusion that suicide was the only satisfactory solution.

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